By Taylor Scantling
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
Although it took years to materialize, Towson University alumna Tonee Lawson said she knew exactly how she wanted to spend her time after graduation – working with young girls in the Baltimore City area.
Tonee created a nonprofit organization called “Be,” which works to encourage and empower young people, particularly girls, to work hard, and prove that they are capable of putting in the work to reach their potential in every aspect of their lives. Teamed with a seven-member board of advisers and two interns, “Be” operates multiple programs funded by government grants and donations.
Among the program, there is an after-school activity, an “empowerment” academy for young girls at local schools, a lunch club, and a pop-up leadership conference. The events all take place at various locations, such as elementary schools and community centers. Pop up leadership conferences are programs that schools can contact “Be” to come out and run, and ultimately teach students skills to become a leader in school and in the real world. Many events also are planned for the Be office at 3503 N. Charles Street.
The latest enterprise was a Sneaker Ball that attracted more than 200 guests. The Sneaker Ball is a gala for community members, parents of participants and sponsors, with an added twist. While wearing beautiful dresses and lush suits, guests are encouraged to wear their favorite sneakers, from classic Chuck Taylors and Vans to Nike Roshes and Yeezys. Tickets varied between general admission and VIP tickets, which ranged between $100 and $250.
“Without my team, my board members and interns, we wouldn’t have been able to pull [the ball] off,” said Lawson. “We really rely on our volunteers to put in work to help us get these things done. And it worked out in the end.”
Lawson said she first developed an interest in grooming young girls while a student at Towson.
“I was part of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.,” said Lawson, born and raised in Upper Marlboro. “My sorority sisters and I had the opportunity to run a program with young girls in the Baltimore area. I loved doing it and was absolutely devastated when the program ended because my chapter decided to move in a different direction.”
It wasn’t until Lawson graduated from Towson that things took a turn and she found herself not in graduate school and in need of a job. Her first attempts to find employment were unsuccessful.
“I got my second job just by having a connection, a woman who worked in human services that knew one of my friends recommended me for a job,” said Lawson. “That’s how I began working as a case manager for the Baltimore County of Aging and Human Services.”
Lawson said she worked for Baltimore County about seven years, until she eventually left the job in search of something that would give her the chance to serve. That opportunity came when Lawson said she met a social worker in Baltimore, who was searching for someone to run after-school programming for children in the area. Excited with the chance to go back to her roots, Lawson said she jumped at the opportunity and ran the program.
Eventually, Lawson said the University of Maryland School of Social Work agreed to sponsor her dream, which had evolved into “Be”.
LaTeri McFadden is one of the seven who sit on Be’s board of advisors and holds the position of chairman. The 36-year-old Baltimore native first had the opportunity to work with Lawson five years ago, when Lawson presented “Be” to her while volunteering at several locations around the city.
McFadden said that her role as chairman allows her to give advice to and pitch her own ideas within the organization.
Although her average work days are around 14 hours, McFadden said working for a non-profit gives her the opportunity to positively impact the community and be a vessel for change.
“My favorite part is seeing the light in the eyes of our youth because they know they can be whatever they dream of,” she said.
Tashanna Sands is one of two interns who work directly with Lawson. The 19-year-old Public Health major said she first met Lawson more than a year ago. Sands credits Lawson with helping her realize talents and the ways they could be utilized within the organization.
As an intern, she handles the organization’s social media, developing and managing all of the platforms. She said her work days include an average 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift, with opportunities to focus her skills while she’s at home.
“Working for a non-profit is work that all people should enjoy doing, because doing that service is a huge learning experience,” said Sands. “I leave work feeling accomplished and happy that I’m able to make a difference in people’s lives around me.”
In community service, Sands has one bit of advice for students who want to go forward with working for non-profits or starting their own companies and organizations.
“Be motivated, don’t do just because you want something, don’t do it just because your friends are, go into with an open mind and an open heart and you will meet so many different people with kind hearts and maybe even change someone’s life for the better.”